Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

By Gustavo Pérez Firmat

            One of the landmarks of Cuban Miami is a restaurant called Versailles, which has been located on Eighth Street and Thirty-fifth Avenue for many years. Just about the only thing Versailles shares with its French namesake is the mirrors on the walls. One goes to the Versailles not only to be seen, but to be multiplied. This quaint, kitschy, noisy restaurant that serves basic Cuban food is a paradise for the self-absorbed:  the Nirvana of Little Havana. Because of the bright lights, even the windows reflect. The Versailles is a Cuban panoptikon:  you can lunch, but you can't hide. Who goes there wants to be the stuff of visions. Who goes there wants to make a spectacle of himself (or herself). All the ajiaco you can eat and all of the jewelry you can wear multiplied by the number of reflecting planes – and to top it off, a waitress who calls you mi vida.
            Across the street at La Carreta, another popular restaurant, the food is the same (both establishments are owned by the same man) but the feel is different. Instead of mirrors, La Carreta has booths. There you can ensconce yourself in a booth and not be faced with multiple images of yourself. But at the Versailles there is no choice but to bask in self-reflective glory.
            For years I have harbored the fantasy that those mirrors retain the blurred image of everyone who has paraded before them. I think the mirrors have a memory, as when one turns off the TV and the shadowy figures remain on the screen. Every Cuban who has lived or set foot in Miami over the last three decades has, at one time or another, seen himself reflected on those shiny surfaces. It’s no coincidence that the Versailles sits only two blocks away from the Woodlawn Cemetery, which contains the remains of many Cuban notables, including Desi Arnaz’s father, whose remains occupy a niche right above Gerardo Machado’s. Has anybody ever counted the number of Cubans who had died in Miami? Miami is a Cuban city not only because of the numbers of Cubans who live there but also because of the number who have died there. The living can always move away; it’s the dead who are a city’s permanent residents, for once they stop living there, they never stop living there.

            The Versailles is a glistening mausoleum. The history of Little Havana – tragic, comic, tragic-comic – is written on those spectacular specular walls. This may have been why, when the mirrors came down in 1991, there was such an uproar that some of them had to be put back. When the time comes for me to pay for my last ajiaco, I intend to disappear into one of the mirrors (I would prefer the one on the right, just above the espresso machine). My idea of immortality is to become a mirror image at the Versailles.

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